Fear and panic surrounding the coronavirus has unfortunately prevailed for some Americans.
In early March, before COVID-19 stay-at-home orders took effect for tens of millions of Americans, that fear targeted one family whose only infraction was being too big, and also exposed a major issue with anonymous government reporting systems in general.
A large family — two parents and seven children — were transitioning their lives to Kentucky, away from the noise of New York City, where they used to live, when a routine trip to a bank put them under the microscope and led to an investigation from the state’s child protective services agency.
Attorney James Mason of the Home School Legal Defense Association, a homeschooling advocacy group, described the harrowing tale of the family, which his organization is defending after they were reported to authorities following a trip to the bank. (Reason additionally obtained a letter from child services confirming the complaint’s existence.)
Using the pseudonyms of “Bill and Kristy,” Mason described how a trip to open up a joint account for the parents in their new state led to a nightmare for the entire family.
“They loaded up their seven children in the van and made their way around town, working through their errand list. All seven children went into the various businesses with them until the family got to the bank, where the oldest two children asked to stay in the van,” Mason wrote in a blog post.
Their other five kids were too young to be left unattended, and both parents had to be present to open the joint account.
What were they to do?
Since the large family literally couldn’t social distance, they entered the bank to conduct their business, as any family would.
Mason said the family was met by a COVID-19 warning sign and the parents were immediately questioned by bank employees about why they had brought five children inside.
A bank employee “told them they could not get within six feet of her and that they needed to take the children out,” Mason wrote, adding that Kristy explained their unique situation of not wanting to leave their young kids unattended.
“While Bill stayed with the children away from the counter, Kristy opened the account, feeling self-conscious as the staff whispered to each other and watched her family suspiciously. When Bill walked to the counter to show his New York ID and to sign, the bank staff asked why Bill’s and Kristy’s identifications were from different states, which the couple explained,” Mason wrote.
The encounter left the family feeling a bit uncomfortable, but it was nothing compared to what they found when they arrived back at their home.
A child services investigator and a law enforcement officer were there waiting, and the couple soon discovered they were apparently suspects in an investigation, Mason said.
It seems that someone, likely an individual who had seen the family at the bank, had called to report them for suspected child abuse or neglect, apparently making up a claim that the children had bruises on them and saying that Bill was not their father.
“The officials stated that they needed to do a safety check on the family’s ‘five children’ (not seven) because it had been reported that the children were out in public with a strange man who was not their father, and they had bruises on their arms as though they had been improperly grabbed,” Mason said.
“The CPS investigator moved all seven of the children farther away from Bill and Kristy and questioned the kids. At least one of the boys had to remove his shirt, on the investigator’s orders. The girls would have had to do the same, but Kristy objected and insisted on being present for the girls’ physical examinations. The investigator pulled up the girls’ sleeves, lifted their clothing, and took pictures. Kristy and Bill’s 10-year-old daughter, in particular, felt extremely uncomfortable having her privacy and dignity invaded in this way.”
Mason pointed out that no bruises were found, and since the kids were all wearing long sleeves, no one at the bank would have been able to see their arms anyway.
The child services worker, apparently unsatisfied with evidence that no abuse was taking place, reportedly demanded that all of the children be taken to a health department location for further examination despite the fact that Kristy was pregnant, and didn’t particularly want to risk being infected with the coronavirus.
Mason suggested a bank employee may have been the one to make the call, as child services was under the impression there were only five children (not seven), which is how many the parents brought into the lobby with them.
The attorney further speculated that the bank employee might have been abusing the state’s anonymous reporting system as “retaliation” for the family not adhering to social distancing guidelines.
But how is a family of nine supposed to “not gather in groups,” as is suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?
Mason argued the case is an example of why anonymous reporting systems designed to protect children are flawed, and said it is evidence that government agencies like this one should not be permitted to continue open-ended investigations after it is apparent that no abuse or neglect has occurred.
“A hotline tip should not be an invitation to fish around for additional details about a family’s life,” he wrote. “A typical investigation includes private interviews with the children, ‘body checks’ (in other words, strip searches), searches of the home, medical records checks, and more. And contrary to common sense, it is understood by CPS investigators around the country that once they begin this intrusive process, they must complete it, even if they discover the tip is false.”
While the horror these parents probably felt is not an emotion that’s necessarily applicable to everyone, we have all now seen what can happen when government is allowed to run amok with little or no oversight.
Some people who are essentially locked indoors are being encouraged to report members of their community for not following government-mandated stay-at-home orders, while others have been investigated, harassed and even arrested for attempting to live their lives while being smart about avoiding crowds.
Governments are exercising powers not granted to them by the Constitution, and ordinary Americans are finding themselves targets of government overreach.
In the case of Bill, Kristy and their family, it appears someone made a false claim that caused an unnecessary ordeal.
While the family was not investigated for failure to socially distance, it seems that the action of simply being together might have been a motivating factor behind what ultimately became the child services investigation.
Which family might be next?
As some state and municipal governments across the country have without a doubt exceeded their authority in recent weeks, the family’s nightmare is one that we can probably all identify with, now that we see the importance of protecting our rights from limitless government action.
There are few things more concerning than government officials exercising authority with no accountability.
It is even more terrifying when those officials continue to act after they are aware they have gotten it wrong.
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